INDIANAPOLIS -- Sam Hornish Jr. had such a fast racecar all month long that he probably could have run away to an easy victory in the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. Instead, in true Indianapolis style, the drama played out until the last corner of the last lap.
Hornish went from fourth to first in the last 10 miles, passing rookie Marco Andretti in the sprint to the checkered flag to win by 0.063 of a second -- the second closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history. Michael Andretti was third ahead of 2005 race champion Dan Wheldon as the big names dominated the race every bit as much as expected.
"I thought if we restarted in fourth with 20 laps to go, we'd have a chance," said the awe-struck winner, "but never with four to go."
The finish will go down as an all-time Indy classic, and in many ways, it served as redemption for Hornish after an up-and-down month. The 26-year old native of Defiance, Ohio, was clearly the quickest driver in practice and he claimed pole position with relative ease. But he crashed his backup car after qualifying and nearly threw away the race with a scary pit incident three-quarters of the way through the 200-lap contest.
After serving a drive-through penalty for the Lap 151 pit accident -- caused when team owner Roger Penske waved him out before the fuel hose had been uncoupled from his Dallara -- Hornish fell to eighth place, nearly 30 seconds behind the leading Ganassi Racing duo of Wheldon and Scott Dixon. He lost even more track position by adopting a fuel-saving strategy.
"Once [the pit incident] happened, the question became, how do you fight back?" Hornish said. "We made good decisions, we saved fuel and got a yellow when we needed it."
"We could have folded up our tent and gone home, but we came up with a plan to get back in the race," Penske added. "We made a mistake, but that's the great thing about a long-distance race. You get a chance to come back."
Indeed, just at the point where it looked like a month of hard work had been thrown away by Hornish and his Penske Racing crew, the race came to them in the last 35 laps. A key to his win was the final full-course caution, which came with 10 laps to go when Felipe Giaffone scraped the wall in a car owned by four-time winner A.J. Foyt. The restart came at the start of Lap 197, with Hornish trailing the Andrettis, led by Michael, and Dixon.
Those last four laps produced action as exciting as any in Indy's 90-year history. First, Marco Andretti got a run on his father and demoted Michael to second on Lap 198. At this juncture, the Andretti Green team looked golden, because they had the lapped car of Bryan Herta to serve as a blocker.
But they didn't count on Hornish's tremendous late-race speed advantage. Before the end of Lap 198, he had gotten by Herta and Michael Andretti and set his sights on Marco. Sam made a move into Turn 3 on Lap 199, but Marco defended vigorously and Hornish had to back right out of the throttle.
He lost so much ground to the 19-year old rookie that it appeared there was no way he could make it up over the course of a single, 2.5-mile lap. But by the time the leaders reached Turn 3 again, the red-and-white Marlboro car was right back on the tail of Andretti's blue NYSE-sponsored machine. After feinting to the outside as they exited Turn 4, Hornish darted to the inside and drove past Andretti as if the rookie had one of last year's underpowered Toyota engines in his AGR Dallara.
Hornish's last lap was timed at 219.935 mph; Andretti ran 214.643 mph. There's your difference right there.
"I was holding the overtake button for the last couple of laps," Marco recalled. "I really think the gap I had coming out of Turn 3 would have been enough to beat any other car on the race track. I just don't know where Sam's speed came from."
The truth is, Hornish's car had that speed all month long. He just didn't think he'd need it so late in the race.
"We had Sam saving fuel for most of the race," Penske said. "He hadn't run full rich since very early in the race. Today was exactly why we brought him into our team. His demeanor all month was cool and he was really relaxed today."
Winning the 500 will take a massive load off of Hornish's shoulders. Since he broke into Indy-style racing in 2000 with PDM Racing, Hornish has freely admitted that Indianapolis is his Holy Grail. Yet before Sunday, he had never completed the full race distance, nor finished in the top 10.
"It's a great feeling," Hornish exclaimed from Victory Lane. "I wouldn't trade it for anything else. It may not always go the way you want it to, but it's that much sweeter that way.
"It's been a long month and not everything went our way, as you saw today," he added. "But we stayed together as a team, we had a plan and the car was the best it was all day at the end when we needed it."
Andretti must have thought he saw a freight train approaching in his mirrors over the last couple of laps. He managed to hold off the speeding Hornish on the penultimate tour, but he just didn't have enough speed in the final run to the line.
"I had a giant head of steam on him and I was either going to pancake the car on the wall or win the race," Hornish said. "I thought it was over when I didn't get by him going into 3, but I put it back into gear and got back going.
"For him to finish second as a young guy, he had a heck of a run. That kid drove a heck of a race."
Still, Marco -- and Michael -- were disappointed despite their remarkable 2-3 result. Andretti Green Racing had four of its five entries finish in the top seven Sunday, including Tony Kanaan in fifth and Dario Franchitti in seventh.
"I can't complain because I almost won the Indy 500 as a rookie," Marco said. "But I'm competitive by nature. Woulda, coulda shoulda -- second place is nothing."
"Right now it feels really bad, but in a couple of days, we'll think about what it nearly came down to," Michael said. "I know I didn't have the speed to win, but unfortunately, I didn't do a good enough job protecting Marco. Hornish just got by me too quick. But it's a fairy tale, a dream finish, and he really showed what he can do.
"I just wish Penske wasn't out there. He's cost me three or four of these things over the years."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.